2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There are certain films where you can tell immediately after watching that they’re destined to be written about for years to come. Film students will write entire critical analyses on their visual motifs. Thinkpieces will flow trippingly from the pens of critics everywhere, desperately trying to figure out what it all means. “The Lighthouse” is one of those films. But it would be a mistake to go into it overeager to analyze. “The Lighthouse” is meant to be experienced, mind wide open, and then be haunted by for days to come. If you can swing it, the best possible way to watch the film is in a state of exhaustion, so that your poor, overworked mind is as fragile and malleable as our protagonists.
Robert Pattinson is a young lighthouse operator who has just signed on to spend the next eight weeks with his vastly more experienced counterpart, played by Willem Dafoe. The last man who worked in the lighthouse went mad, Dafoe warns ominously; he became obsessed by the all-consuming glow of the maritime beacon. As the two men will be completely alone for the entire time, isolated on a remote rock in the middle of the sea, this is perhaps not the most auspicious of starts. It’s a cruel irony that though a lighthouse is traditionally a protective warning designed to keep sailors safe, in the hands of Robert Eggers, it takes on an oppressive, sinister quality. It has the power to shine a light into the darkest corners of men’s souls. What it exposes is ugly, wild, and at times incomprehensible, two men stripped bare.
“The Lighthouse” is unabashedly self-indulgent. After the success of “The Witch,” another deeply psychological period horror, Robert Eggers was essentially written a blank check by A24 to make whatever film he wanted. It’s difficult to begrudge him his fun when his imagination and stylistic flourishes reach such staggering heights.
The beginning is conventional if unsettled by the increasingly foreboding score. As time goes on, the narrative structure shifts imperceptibly to reflect the men’s growing instability. The visual language becomes more abstract and allegorical, and the passage of time is disturbingly unreliable. As Winslow (Pattinson) loses touch with reality, so do we.
Both Pattinson and Dafoe clearly relish the opportunity to explore a chaotic, unreliable narrative and throw themselves into roles that are psychologically and physically demanding. Both find moments to distinguish themselves – Willem Dafoe’s seemingly endless melodramatic monologues, Robert Pattinson’s surprising physical comedy as he wages war on seagulls – but what’s most fascinating are the interactions between the two. There are shades of “Persona” in the unique symbiosis that exists in their relationship, the way that their identities ebb and flow, crashing into each other like waves. “The Lighthouse” comes to a roaring crescendo during their showdowns, whether they’re screaming, singing, fighting, or seemingly just about to kiss. As time goes on and things start to come apart, the line that divides Dafoe and Pattinson as separate individuals becomes less rigidly defined.
So many things in “The Lighthouse” are open to interpretation, but the strength of Eggers’ visual language is not one of them. Lit beautifully with candles and lanterns, it has the appearance of a particularly atmospheric Dutch painting from the 1700s. Willem Dafoe’s face was made for this lighting. With endlessly engaging imagery and two remarkable lead performances, “The Lighthouse” all but assures the legacy of Eggers in the arthouse horror genre.